The Internet is Us
Before the Internet (yes, I’m that old) “going online” meant calling my friend Phil’s computer from my own. I’d put a phone handset (there were only what we now call “landlines” back then) into a special cradle with two rubber cups — one for the mouthpiece and another for the earpiece. Then I would manually dial the phone number, wait for his computer to pick up and make a tone, and hit a key on my computer to initiate the handshake.
There wasn’t a lot to do. Phil had a few games on there. And there was a folder with my username on it that I could check for messages. Everyone who had an account on Phil’s computer could also access a bulletin board where we had conversations much like the ones on Twitter or Facebook today, except slow, and friendly, and smart.
Phil’s parents even got him a second phone line, so that two of us could call in at once and chat live or even play a game with each other at the very same time! But Phil had even bigger ideas. He used to go to these meetings with other computer hobbyists in the lobby of the Citicorps building in Manhattan, where he found out about something called Fidonet.
Fidonet was basically a network of other computer users like Phil, each with a couple of phone lines and decent software. So either during the school day or late at night, when none of us was on Phil’s system, his computer would call the other ones on the network, and get all sorts of other cool stuff. There were conversations happening on those computers, too, which he could download and then share with us when we called in. We could even make friends far away, and send them messages by addressing them to whoever ran the hub in their little community — their Phil.
But the network itself? That was us. All the people with computers, calling each other, node to node. Each node was a gateway to more nodes, more machines, more people. There was no destination, just pathways, as if the network were an extension of our nervous systems into a collective one. We constituted the online universe. And this, in itself, augured a new, distributed model for society.
For people like me, who grew up with that as our understanding of networking, today’s Internet seems like a weird thing. “Going online” now generally means signing into some corporate-owned platform, opening an app on a phone, or even logging onto a university server. But the orientation is all wrong. It’s as if we’re here at home and the Internet is this thing or place out there that we gain access to. We’re like consumers or viewers, signing onto Amazon or Google or Facebook or YouTube, submitting to their terms of service, and accepting our roles as paying guests in their world.
I feel like this devolution of networking toward something more like television has finally run its course. It’s time to rediscover something more local, peer-to-peer, and open — like the TOR networks, applied blockchains, and mesh networks emerging today, that connect users to one another instead of to big, centralized, and ultimately closed systems.
I’ve been sick of the net for a while now. But that’s only because I got in the habit of mistaking Twitter and NYTimes.com, Netflix, and the AppStore for networking. I got so caught up in the shortcomings of these closed-ended services that I allowed myself to forget what the net really is. It’s closer to a blogroll (those names on the top left of my page here) than a platform. A network of peers, pinging and sharing laterally and openly instead of on giant, for-profit, proprietary platforms. Those closed-ended services should be free to exist — just like Medium— but they shouldn’t define networking, or dominate the way we set priorities in discussions of open access, net neutrality, surveillance, domain governance, or future standards.
There are many of us waking up to the ways networking has been redefined by those who want us to purchase our knowledge and experiences rather than simply share them. Whether you join the EFF, Free Software Foundation, Free Internet Project, Internet Society’s Community Networking initiative, World Wide Web Foundation, your local middle school computer lab, or one of the initiatives I invite people to add to the comments section below, there are ample opportunities to play along.
Even if you don’t check out the movement to retrieve the technology and values of truly open networks, I encourage you to join me in thinking differently about networking. Most of us still have the orientation backwards.
We are not the users of their network. We are the network.
Douglas Rushkoff writes a weekly column for Medium. You can follow him here. He’s the author of twenty books on media, technology, and society, including Media Virus, Present Shock, and Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. His latest book, Team Human, is being serialized on Medium in weekly installments. Rushkoff is host of the Team Human podcast, a professor of Media Studies at CUNY/Queens, and a graphic novelist.